At six years old, I wasn’t fascinated with Little League, and I wiled away the hours during soccers games, stuck in the goal as the goalie. I like to think it was because I was tall with a decent wingspan for a kindergartner, but I probably wasn’t athletic enough at that point to hold my own in the scrum at midfield.
When I wasn’t playing half-heartedly on the soccer team, my childhood years were largely spent trying to find time to hang out with my uncle. At only thirteen years older than me, he wasn’t quite the adult Mom and Dad were. He could drive, enjoyed eating pizza, and played boardgames; he was the complete package in my book. Hence my proclamation that, like him, I would one day become a bagger at a grocery store. Given that level of idolization, it’s no surprise that I followed him into martial arts.
My Tae-Kwon-Do classes were held in a cinderblock building where big mice/small rats ran across the ducts in the ceiling. After my first class, I smarted off to the instructor, and he made me drop and give him ten push-ups right then and there. He was, obviously, not familiar with my very sarcastic whit, but the discipline and respect were probably just what I needed. I’m sure I started the classes to be just like my uncle; I stuck around because I enjoyed it. In three short years, I was a nine-year-old black belt.
Throughout elementary and middle school, I attended practice regularly, and, by the time I was in high school and college, I was attending when I could, relishing the sparring (fighting) aspects of the sport. I was big, strong, and not afraid to take a punch or kick. What I lacked in technical skill (or grace) I made up for in brute strength and determination. At my dojo, I fought anyone and everyone, confident I could hold my own, even against my long-time instructor. The fighting, even within the rules and discipline of the sport, reaches something primal, and I wasn’t the first to love that feeling. I won’t be the last. The sport had given me discipline that touched all aspects of my life, enhanced my athleticism to something only slightly below average, and built in me a confidence that served me well. Almost always.
My high school and college days took me away from the dojo for long stretches, but my old instructor was always indulgent of my random, occasional drop-ins to work out and spar. After my sophomore year in college, I heard of a kickboxing tournament in southern Indiana that summer. I entered on a lark with no preparation but a head full of confidence. I loved sparring, was in decent shape, and was as strong as I ever had been. What could possibly go wrong?
I entered the ring to blaring music as about a thousand spectators cheered me on. My opponent bounced in the opposite corner. A 6’5″ Indiana state trooper. A little taller than me, but I wasn’t intimidated. I had in my corner my uncle and my old instructor. The bell rung, and the rest is a little hazy. I’d like to describe the fight as the duel of two kick boxers at the pinnacle of their powers. In reality, we were two lugs whaling away at each other with little poetry or even science in our attacks. As the bell signaled the end of the first round, I shuffled back to my corner. My instructor gave me some advice, my uncle gave me some encouragement, and I kept wanting more oxygen to come into my lungs.
The second round is even more of a blur. Kicks landed, punches careened, people yelled, and I did what I had to do to survive. After the bell to end the second round, I returned to my corner gasping for air. For all the confidence I had gained fighting in the controlled environment of the dojo, I had not gained the experience of taking blow after blow from a bigger opponent wearing weighted gloves. I had not gained the experience of giving maximum effort. I had not, truly, kick boxed. I had done something very close, but not quite the same. Just like the end of my first ever martial arts class, someone needed to tell me to drop and give them ten push-ups when I arrogantly decided to enter a kickboxing tournament without ever, you know, kickboxing.
I leaned against the ropes gasping for air, listened to my instructor give me tips for the next round, and then proclaimed, “Darryl, I’m done.” It was the first and only time in 15 years I had ever called him by his first name. That and surely the look of exhaustion in my face conveyed the message. He said no more and informed the referee I was retiring. I wasn’t embarrassed or ashamed, I was too exhausted to process those feelings. I shook my opponents hand and limped to the locker room. The spry young thing that had entered the ring to rock music and the shouts of a thousand just minutes earlier was a distant memory.
Thirty minutes later, I sprawled along the locker room floor, dizzy with what was probably a concussion. I had only the energy to make my way to the toilet to throw up. My uncle, ever the wonderful uncle, was there with me. Admittedly, I felt better when he told me that he was sure I was winning on points after two rounds and could’ve won if I had held on. Whether it was his positivity or my vomit, or a combination of the two, I held my head a little higher and managed to change and leave under my own power. The Booneville Bash was my first and last kickboxing match. Five years later, when I shattered my knee training in a dojo in Jacksonville, Florida, my martial arts career came to an ignominious end.
Nearly 20 years after that kickboxing tournament, I still have the medal I “won” for participating in the tournament. The ribbon is stained with blood, and, for the life of me, I couldn’t tell you what part of me was bleeding. What I lost in blood was surely only exceeded by what I lost in confidence. Or cockiness. Or arrogance. And gained in wisdom and humility and appreciation for non-contact sports.